Michigan linebacker Dhani Jones was browsing in a bookstore in Ann Arbor earlier this fall when a small volume of baby names and their origin caught his eye. He did not expect to find his name, but it was listed as having a Hindu origin and two meanings--"thinking man" and "one who has many riches."
Jones, who grew up in Potomac and went to Churchill High School, fits both descriptions. He is the consummate scholar-athlete. He will graduate in four years, having essentially created a major that incorporates his interests as an artist, actor, poet, photographer and budding screenwriter.
He plans to take the medical school entrance exams in April, the same month he also is likely to become a man of some material riches following the NFL draft. Slightly undersized at 6 feet 1 and 230 pounds, he now is considered a middle-round pick. But with a big game in the Orange Bowl tonight against Alabama and impressive performances in all-star games this month and at the NFL scouting combine in February, he could move up to the second or third round, according to several pro scouts.
Jones would like to try pro football, but he has countless fallback positions. No matter what, he will put off medical school for at least two years. If he doesn't make it in the NFL, he's thinking about getting an MBA or some other graduate business degree before going to medical school, with the ultimate goal of becoming a pediatric plastic neurosurgeon.
"I have so many things going on in my life," Jones said this week while sitting poolside during an Orange Bowl media day session. "I don't know exactly what I'm going to do, but I do know I want to do something that affects young black males. That's one of the most important things in my life. I want to motivate them, make them understand the opportunities they have in life, things they can do if they put their mind to it. Pro football would give me a wonderful platform to do that, but no matter what I do, that will always be a primary goal."
At Michigan, Jones has organized a group of 50 black men--students, faculty, support staff--that meets every Monday night to discuss the issues of the day as well as art, literature and politics. He calls the group H.E.A.D.S., which stands for "Here Earning a Destiny with Honesty, Eagerness and Determination of Self."
Jones got the idea in February 1997 when he heard a speech by Johns Hopkins' Ben Carson, a nationally known pediatric plastic neurosurgeon. It had a profound affect on Jones, including his choice of career goals. He also organized about 20 of his friends on campus to attend the Million Man March in Washington in 1997, with the group staying at his parents' house in Potomac before heading into the city.
"The main goal of H.E.A.D.S. is to establish communication with black men and to increase our intellectual abilities with one another," Jones said. "We live in a fishbowl. Every move we make is examined by outside people. If we want to continue our existence and get respect in society, we have to use our ability to learn and to study in order to have any kind of impact. We want to erase the stereotype--can't read, can't think--that some people still have."
Jones is the first Michigan football player to have been accepted into Michigan's Residential College, a school within the school that one Detroit writer described as "a haven for the eccentric." Michigan Coach Lloyd Carr's face lights up when asked about Jones, a player he described as "one of the most unusual young men I've ever been around."
"He's been fun to coach because of all the things he brings to the table," Carr said. "He definitely marches to a different drummer, but he's extremely team-oriented, a great leader and no one works harder on the field. He has the same commitment to academics. He's the kind of kid coaches dream about."
The message on Jones's telephone answering machine also speaks volumes. "Don't have a closed mind when you leave a message for Dhani Jones," it tells callers. "Remember what Morgan Freeman said [in the film "The Shawshank Redemption"]. 'Some birds aren't meant to be caged; their feathers are too bright.' "
Despite his myriad interests, Jones still has a major passion for football, not to mention the University of Michigan. His father, Sam, a retired career Navy man, and his mother, Nancy, an anesthesiologist, are both Michigan graduates, but the Wolverines were not especially interested in Jones when he was coming out of high school.
Before his senior year at Churchill, he underwent back surgery to repair a herniated disk. His doctors initially thought he wouldn't be able to play that season. Instead, he came back after six games and played well enough to make several all-conference teams. Several schools were interested in him, including the U.S. Naval Academy, "but I think my ways might have been a little too liberal for them," he said. "I probably would have tried to break all the rules."
Jones gained the Michigan coaching staff's interest by sending tapes of his games. In addition, Churchill's coach, Fred Shepherd, also lobbied on his behalf. A scholarship eventually was offered, and quickly accepted. After spending most of his freshman season on special teams, Jones became a starting linebacker on the 1997 Michigan team that went 12-0, beating Washington State in the Rose Bowl to win a share of the national championship.
This season, despite a nagging knee injury, he started all 11 games for a team that went 9-2 and finished the regular season ranked eighth in the nation. He was the team's second-leading tackler and he tied for the team lead with 11 tackles for loss; he also was named to the all-Big Ten Conference second team. Now, he is mostly healthy and looking forward to finishing his college playing career with one more victory.
How does he manage to combine football with all his other interests?
"I love playing the game--it helps me get rid of any anger I have," he said. "I've learned how to keep different areas of my life separate. You just function in a lot of different gears--first gear is football, second gear is the classwork, third gear may be social or whatever. Sometimes you have to go into overdrive to do everything. I've just always wanted to put my soul into everything I do. That's just the way I am, I guess."
CAPTION: Michigan Coach Lloyd Carr describes Dhani Jones, above, as one of the most unusual young men he's ever met. "He's the kind of kid coaches dream about."